The wisdom of the magi

Christmas is over, right? Why am I still writing about the three magi who visited Jesus? Well, we are right around the corner from Epiphany, or the Feast of the Three Kings. So it’s timely to focus on this mysterious group of men have been called kings, wise men and astrologers. If you’re not familiar with the story, take a look at Matthew 2:1-12, and then let’s dig in.

Who were the “magi,” to use Matthew’s term? I don’t believe they were kings, but I think they are descendants of a long-time strategy of kings to draw the wisest and most discerning men close to them in a desperate attempt to see the future and lead well. As Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (ESV).

Let’s trace this thread through history: 

  • When Pharaoh needs a dream interpreted and finds his magicians and wise men deficient, he gravitates to Joseph, “a discerning and wise man” who can tell him what God is about to do. “Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God? … Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you,” he says as he makes him prime minister. (Gen 41:25-40)
  • When Pharaoh faces his challenger Moses, and Moses turns his staff into a snake, he calls out his wise men and sorcerers to reproduce the miracle. They are also able to turn water to blood and produce frogs but unable to produce gnats. (Ex 7-8)
  • When David is pulling his military together at Hebron, he values Issachar’s contribution: 200 chiefs who understood the times and knew what to do. (1 Chr 12:32)
  • When King Xerxes is faced with a defiant Queen Vashti, he consults “experts in law and justice,” “wise men who understood the times and were closest to the king.” (Esther 1:13-14)
  • When Nebuchadnezzar is baffled by his dreams, he summons “his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed.” When Daniel is able to explain the dream—because God “gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him”—Nebuchadnezzar places him in charge of all of Babylon’s wise men. (Daniel 2
  • Even Herod, when he first hears from the magi that a star indicates a new king has been born, consults the chief priests and teachers of the law. (Matthew 2:4)
  • When an intelligent proconsul of Paphos, who already retains a Jewish sorcerer named Elymas and a false prophet named Bar-Jesus, hears of Barnabas and Saul, he sends for them “because he wanted to hear the word of God”—likely not out of earnest seeking, but to add to his collection of wise men. (Acts 13:7-8)

Magi seems to be a word of Babylonian origin, which is consistent with these magi coming from the east. I believe Daniel was a magus himself and likely became leader of the magi. This group’s thirst for knowledge and early indicators lead them to note a star that no one else has observed, to conclude it indicates the birth of a king and then to seek that king in Israel. 

This Covid pandemic has the feel of a pivotal time. Few previous occasions have really become a global touchpoint we all have in common. What does it indicate? How is it likely to shake things up? Many of us, including me, long to understand our times and know what to do. But we haven’t faced anything like this in our lifetimes. I believe a moment like the one we’re in should not be wasted. It should be a catalyst to move on the things we’ve known we need to do, finally giving us the courage to act. Here are a few quick thoughts from the wisdom of the magi.

Watchful. The magi see the star because they are watching. Jesus tells us we should be servants noted for watchfulness, readiness, faithfulness and wisdom so we’ll be caught doing the right things. (Luke 12:35-48)

Take action on what you know. It’s not enough just to note the star; the magi believe enough to commit the resources to a long trip, but even then, they are still asking questions. They don’t have full information on what they had observed, but they also don’t stay in Babylon.

Discerning. They hear the words of Herod that he also wants to worship this king, but they also hear the warning from God in a dream. They are shrewd enough to defy the local authority and heed the words of God.

Widely read. We can see that the magi seek wisdom in many forms: the movement of the planets, prophecy, dreams and asking questions.

From the magi’s example, we see that wisdom is not static. Being in the right place at the right time does not come from a single bolt-of-lightning moment, but a progressive process. 

Let’s commit ourselves to watchfulness, obedience and discernment about the times we’re in.

And maybe 2022 is a great time to expand our studies to include other forms of wisdom or other sources we haven’t learned before. To prompt your thinking: First Nations elders are called “knowledge keepers,” and many of them can draw on the informal education they received before residential schools gave them a European education; they learned trapping, environmental practices and land management from their parents. Any tradesman has a pool of wisdom gathered from experience: carpenters, mechanics, electricians or farmers. Or why not take up a pursuit you’ve never engaged in before: calligraphy, baking, painting, woodworking or learning a new language?

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